Thursday, 26 November 2015

Livingstone has betrayed his own 7/7 legacy

After the attacks of July 7, 2004, Ken Livingstone gave, what I thought at the time, one of the most powerful, appropriate, significant, moving, unifying, perfect, political speeches of our time. He spoke for wounded, but resilient city.

And yet, the same person last night stated that the bombers that day 'gave their lives' in protest against the invasion of Iraq after the country had been 'lied to' by Tony Blair. Ken Livingstone 'absolved' them

I knew Blair was lying at the time. So did Ken. I went to anti-war events with Ken Livingstone where Kenneth Kaunda and Jesse Jackson were guests of honour in 'London's Living Room' in City Hall. Jeremy Corbyn was at same of the events too. But despite being lied to by Tony Blair over the invasion of Iraq we didn't bomb London. But Ken Livingstone gave them an excuse they didn't have and it was despicable. 

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Corbyn is avoiding his duty by avoiding Syria

I know the focus was never likely to be on Jeremy Corbyn’s efforts at Prime Minister’s Questions, as George Osborne was unveiling his double whammy, the Autumn Statement and Spending Review all rolled into one. But, Corbyn may as well not have bothered turning up he made so little impact.

It is not that the subject matter of his questions were completely inappropriate – challenging the government’s commitment to green energy and the plight of, and services offered to, abused women – they were just the wrong subjects on the day.

The Prime Minister is preparing to present to the House of Commons proposals, which will at some point be debated, that could see British armed forces going into action against ISIL in Syria. I know that the Labour Party is hopelessly split on the issue, but it falls to the Leader of the Opposition to raise these important issues on occasions like PMQs.

And while the pressure to support such airstrikes is huge – and, speaking personally, I do think we have a responsibility to help try and fix the mess which we are undoubtedly partly to blame for creating – the shooting down of the Russian plane by a Turkish fighter is reason enough to consider pausing for a moment, just to allow for anger to subside, for events to follow their course.

Had Jeremy Corbyn made such a plea, even though David Cameron is likely to have brushed it off, the Leader of the Opposition would have been making a reasonable point, one which would have broad appeal. After all, hastily sending our military in to such a confusing, multi-layered, conflict zone, without detailed talks and agreements between as many of the significant players as possible, is the last thing we should be doing.

But no. Not a word on the matter did Jeremy Corbyn mutter. It was left to the SNP’s Angus Robertson to mention Syria. Sadly for Corbyn, avoiding the issue isn’t going to make it go away.


While I'm on the subject of the opposition, how on earth did shadow chancellor John McDonnell put himself into a position where he had to appear on television and condemn the brutality of Chairman Mao? I understand it was supposed to be a gag about Osborne flogging of British assets to a Communist government in China - an attack which has some merit - but to say it fell flat is slightly flattering.

I do quite like McDonnell's style on television; he's quite open and happy to be contrite - some may say he has a lot for which to be contrite - but he should steer clear of attempts at edgy humour.

'Affordable' housing that isn't

In what looks suspiciously like an attempt to garner a few favourable headlines before the full gruesome fine details of today's Autumn Statement are fully exposed, the Treasury last night put out a release unveiling the Chancellor's plan to turn 'Generation Rent into Generation Buy'.

George Osborne will commit to building over 400,000 new homes across England by 2020/2021, costing £6.9billion, claiming it will be the 'biggest affordable housebuilding programme since the 1970s'. To achieve this, he will say that the government will be doubling its housing budget and encouraging private developers to build affordable homes.

Of these, the government says 200,000 will be starter homes, aimed at first time buyers under the age of 40 and to be offered at a 20 per cent discount.  They would have a maximum, and apparently 'affordable', price of £250,000 outside of London and £450,000 in the capital.

It is, inevitably, just the latest repackaging of a reannouncement of a reannouncement of an announcement  on this issue. But, the starter home scheme remains beset by the same problems; largely that they remain far too expensive.

In October this year, Shelter did a study of the policy and demonstrated only higher earners are likely to benefit. It found, at 'current average lending ratios':

In England, you'd need an income of £50,000 and a deposit of £40,000

In London, you'd need an income of £77,000 and a deposit of £98,000

If you secured a 95% mortgage on a Starter Home

In England, you'd need an income of £59,000 and a deposit of almost £11,000

In London, you'd need an income of £97,000 and a deposit of almost £20,000

The study went on:

'This is out of reach for low and middle earners, especially families. Only higher earners, in the top 30%, have much of a chance, and in London only then if you're a couple with two high incomes. Even then, that assumes that you've already got a hefty deposit saved up. For families without deposits, only the top 10% of earners will stand a chance.'

It seems that aiming at these small, comparatively wealthy, groups is what passes for an 'affordable' housing policy.

The full comments from Shelter can be found here


It won't be a surprise to many, but the Greens are understandably unimpressed by Osborne's 'affordable' housing plans. In a statement released this morning, London Assembly member Darren Johnson said:

'This budget won't offer anything to most of Generation Rent in London, for whom buying a home is a bad joke, muich like the term "affordable housing". Renters need secure tenancies and rent controls so they can stay put and save a deposit, curbs on property investors who are driving up house prices, and investment in social housing for renters on low incomes.

'This review also marks the end of investment in affordable housing in inner London, where the housing crisis is worst. The chancellor has turned his back on Londoners who are overcrowded, in poverty due to housing costs, and homeless.'

I expect Green MP Caroline Lucas to make much the same arguments later today.


Another figure you won't hear from George Osborne today is a prediction from the Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR). In a report published today, the organisation reckons that not only will the chancellor miss this year's deficit target of £69.5billion, he will also fail to return the UK to a surplus by 2020.

Blaming weaker than expected growth, the CEBR predicts the deficit will be more than £18billion in 2021, rather than the £11.6bn as predicted by the Office for Budget Responsibility - a black hole of £30bn. After missing most of his main economic targets during the Coalition government, is Osborne going to do it all again?

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

'52%' want UN backing for airstrikes

While the voices calling for Britain to be more involved in a military campaign against ISIL are becoming louder, it is worth noting that public opinion is divided on whether further commitment is the best course of action.

In fact, a recent poll, taken after the Paris atrocities, indicates public opinion may be more along Jeremy Corbyn's line of thinking.

According to the survey - published by Survation, which questioned 1,546 people on November 16 and November 17 – just 15 per cent of people support Britain taking unilateral action against ISIL in Syria. A further 52 per cent support a ‘more measured, multilateral response, military or otherwise' but, crucially, 'backed by a UN resolution’.

Thirteen per cent believe Britain should avoid any involvement whatsoever, a policy backed by 19% of UKIP voters.

Significantly, the poll also reports that a majority fear our current bombing campaign against ISIL in Iraq has not made this country any safer, quite the opposite in fact. Just 18 per cent of people thought military strikes against Islamic State had made the UK safer, 56 per cent think the country is less safe as a consequence.

In Prime Minister's Questions, David Cameron was asked - by the SNP's Angus Robertson, not Jeremy Corbyn - would he only commit the UK to further action against ISIL if he had the approval of the United Nations. This is Mr Cameron reply:

'It is always preferable to have a UN Security Council resolution, but if they are vetoed or threatened with a veto over and over again, my job, frankly, as Prime Minister, is not to read a Survation opinion poll but to do the right thing to keep our country safe.'

It would seem that the Prime Minister is not too concerned by the views of the UN then. 

But if he presses ahead with his plans for a Commons vote on bombing in Syria, he will still face an almighty struggle to get it through. Last time round 30 Conservatives voted against Syrian airstrikes and Jeremy Corbyn now plans to order his side to vote against any expanding military commitment without UN backing. There will be Labour rebels but can Cameron really rely on sufficient numbers being prepared to defy their leader to get it through?

(Survation's full results can be found here)

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

The Labour Party is ashamed of its own leader

‘I can’t speak for Jeremy’ was a phrase I heard several times on the Today programme as Hilary Benn appeared discussing the Labour Party’s confused position regarding terrorism, the shoot to kill policy and Syria. We now find the opposition in such an absurd position that the Shadow Foreign Secretary - a thoughtful, rather than a bellicose, man - is not only disagreeing with his leader but also not offering him much of a defence.

Of course, in many ways, Jeremy Corbyn is right. It would be preferable for characters such as Mohammed ‘Jihadi John’ Emwazi to be brought before a court of law and be tried, found guilty and appropriately sentenced for his brutal murders. Similarly, it would be better if we were able to diffuse potential terror attacks far in advance and not be forced to rely on a shoot-to-kill policy; this is, after all, a last ditch defence and can go wrong – just think of poor Jean-Charles de Menezes.

Corbyn's view on the shoot-to-kill policy

But, ultimately, neither of these options is currently credible.

Corbyn is also right that to a certain extent the mistakes of the West have contributed to this terrible situation. We are still clearly feeling the consequences of the invasion of Iraq and it is perfectly easy to present an argument that the West’s actions have caused instability and terror over decades in places like Iran, Afghanistan, Israel, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Libya and Yemen. But, relying on simply blaming the errors of the West as the basis for a foreign policy is wholly inadequate and not sustainable.

Ultimate responsibility for the onslaught in Paris, the recent bombing of the Russian plane after it left Sharm el-Sheikh, and other similar attacks, lies with the perpetrators and no one else. The horrific actions by ISIL within the land they control cannot be blamed on the actions of the West. No one but ISIL alone can be held responsible for its prehistoric rule of terror, the beheadings, the mass executions, the stonings, the sexual exploitation, the beatings.

There is, for apparently good reason, widespread acceptance that it isn't possible to sit down at a table with these people and negotiate; there will be no agreement or peace and reconciliation commission. We are faced with the difficulty that the jihadis, high on blood lust and power, regard it as a privilege to be killed. This disconcertingly alien doctrine makes it horrendously difficult to know how to obstruct them. Ironically, it would seem that we need to give them the satisfaction of achieving martyrdom; the only way to defeat them must be by military means; it will, of course, be far more difficult, but all the more important, to defeat their ideas.

Instead of grappling with these realities, however, Corbyn is sticking with pacifist principles, insisting that there needs to be a peaceful solution to Syria. It goes without saying that not many would argue about the desirability of following such a path. If the situation were not so serious, there would be something almost admirable about Corbyn's insistence on remaining loyal to his ideals in the face of such horror. After all, there were many admirable men who were conscientious objectors in the last world war, usually motivated by a profound religious belief, who refused to fight or kill but still served society with great heroism. They did not, however, succeed as leaders of a major political party. The cold reality is that, when faced with complex, difficult moral crises, leading politicians require their ideals to be malleable, infused with a streak of Machiavellian realism.

So while Corbyn was comfortable as a principled, anti-war critic on Labour’s backbenches, as leader he now shies away from formulating policy knowing that the majority of the parliamentary Labour Party disagrees with him. 

Cameron’s strategy towards Syria may be incoherent and relies on ignoring the refugee crisis currently in Europe, but at least there is a semblance of a strategy emerging. There is a recognition that only massive international co-operation will tackle ISIL. 

Corbyn, meanwhile, plans to instruct Labour MPs to vote against extending British bombing in Syria - surely such an issue should be a matter of conscience - and yet has failed to offer a viable alternative. Shadow ministers know they cannot keep appearing in the news, flatly contradicting their leader, and, simultaneously, be a credible opposition. His parliamentary party know this and are furious and embarrassed.

I’m left wondering what Corbyn’s attitude would be towards situations like the genocide in Rwanda or the Bosnian War; under what circumstances would Jeremy Corbyn support military intervention? So far, it’s a question he refuses to answer and it won't go away.

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

What sort of NHS do we want?

It is quite a painful thought to realise that some think that by using IVF through the NHS one may have deprived someone of vital life-saving cancer drugs. Yet, that is what I was left thinking after listening to a debate on the radio the other day: it confirmed what many already suspected - access to IVF services is increasingly something of a postcode lottery across the country as the NHS has continually to tighten its belt as it struggles to stay vaguely solvent.

The programme brought memories flooding back from several years ago when my wife and I went through two IVF cycles through the NHS. Oddly enough, I find I struggle to remember many precise details as the whole process lasted so many years and the stress was so tiring, putting it out of my mind has broadly seemed the best thing to do.

Inevitably, we began with the many years of trying and failing to have a baby, then there were the exploratory tests, there was an operation, possibly two, there was a useless GP who lost our notes setting the whole procedure back months, and by doing so reducing our chances of success – and even of being accepted as patients – as we got steadily older and closer to very inflexible deadlines.

Once we finally were accepted, after a doctor was a little generous with my wife’s (lack of) weight, the drugs started, then the evening injections and the final, vital, trigger injection. The latter has to be given with such precision, the first time we did it we had to find a quiet room in the middle of a wedding reception to administer it. Then a specimen has be provided, the specialists do their wizardry. And then there is the waiting to see if it worked.

And, the first time, it didn’t. What next?

Apart from the inevitable huge disappointment, I remember going to our next appointment at the unit not entirely clear what we could do next; it’s possible that is just my recollection. But, suffice it to say, we started the drugs again, and another trigger injection – this time the specified time was in the middle of the night. To my horror, I managed to bend the needle but hoped I had administered the required quantity of the drug. Another specimen, more wizardry, then more waiting.

This time, it worked, bent needle or not. And our daughter has just turned 3.

Some describe this treatment as a ‘luxury’ but it certainly didn’t feel like it at the time. According to NICE guidelines, clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) should offer three cycles of IVF to all women of 39 or under. When we embarked upon this path, the age limit in our area was 35 and only two cycles were offered; it is certainly not the worst. The guidelines are woefully ignored across the country with only 18 per cent of CCGs offering the full service. What treatment one gets is entirely reliant on where one lives. It’s a hopeless situation which the government is studiously ignoring; its budgeting means that such treatments are a secondary concern.

According the OECD, Britain still spends less - in some cases significantly so - on health per capita than many of our European neighbours, such as France, Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark. We spend less per capita than Canada and Australia (and the US, though its health service is something of a basketcase).

It is, therefore, hardly surprising that the OECD finds that, as a consequence of pretty mediocre spending, by the standards of developed Western nations, we currently have a mediocre health service. Their new report finds that we lag behind countries in key areas such as the survival from cervical, breast and bowel cancer. We need 75,000 more doctors and nurses to match the standards of our peer nations (a cause hardly likely to be helped by our government's anti-immigration rhetoric).

In these circumstances, and ignoring the fact that infertility is a recognised medical condition, I can understand how someone might think that a trust spending £6,000 trying to assist a couple have a child might reduce funds available for other therapies. We have learned so much about the importance of speed, when treating cancer, for example, that our reaction to demands for swift medical intervention, is urgent and visceral. And politicians, to extent, can make moves to answer such demands. At the same time, however, it is almost impossible to quantify the long term costs accrued due to stress, depression from infertility, and consequent long term savings from successful IVF treatment. In ways similar to aspects of mental health, it is simply easier to ignore.

Ultimately, it is a matter of ambition: It is about what sort of NHS we want - and are willing to pay for. Should the service be one which is constantly scrimping and saving, where one treatment is competing with another and there is a debate about which is apparently more 'justifiable’? Do we want a health service which doesn't aspire to be the best but instead is stuck on a permanent downward spiral? Politicians can talk about delivering the best health service in the world but this needs backing with hard cash. Putting it simply, this should not be a question of either cancer treatment or IVF. We need, and should demand, both.